Deism, Separation of Church and State

At Latin mass this morning, the priest (philosopher guy) spoke about the separation of church and state.  Or, more accurately, he spoke against it.  He quoted a statement by Pope Benedict (I think) that said removing God from the public sphere deprives people of the strength and hope that can come through religion.  The priest also said that states can establish a religion, although the First Amendment prohibits the U.S. Congress from doing so.  He mentioned the possibility of a “Catholic nation” (which would probably scare Seventh-Day Adventists), even though, earlier in his homily, he denied that Jesus wanted to establish a theocracy.  While he said that he didn’t want the pope to directly dictate to Catholic politicians how to vote, he did affirm that Catholic politicians should be guided by Catholic principles, which are in accord with natural law.  And he warned that the separation of church and state could harm the church, which occurs whenever the IRS has problems with the Catholic church being involved in politics.

To his credit, the priest didn’t regurgitate the usual “religious right” narrative of American history, in which all of the founding fathers were devout Christians attempting to establish a Christian nation.  Rather, he said that the founding fathers were deists, who believed that God created the world and then walked away from it.  The priest also acknowledged that America’s civil religion has a history of anti-Catholicism.  He was probably responding to those who wonder why there are Catholics on the side of the “religious right,” when America wasn’t exactly friendly to Catholics in its “Christian nation” days.  But the priest said that the founding fathers at least believed in God, so we shouldn’t remove religion from public life.

Here are some reactions:

1.  Did the deist founding fathers believe that God created the world and had nothing to do with it afterwards?  I have problems buying this.  Thomas Jefferson was supposedly a deist, and he wrote the Declaration of Independence, which committed the cause of the American colonists to the care of divine providence.  The word “providence” implies God’s continued involvement in the world. 

At the same time, as I look through Thomas Paine’s anti-Christian, pro-deist book, The Age of Reason, I get mixed feelings about deist beliefs regarding God’s relationship with the world.  Paine clearly believes that one can know God through God’s creation.  As he beautifully affirms in Chapter 9:

Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible Whole is governed. Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the scripture, which any human hand might make, but the scripture called the Creation.

Does he believe that God continues to provide for his creation?  Perhaps.  He said above that God doesn’t withhold abundance from the unthankful.  And, in Chapter 10, he offers mild praise for something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

The only passage that occurs to me, that has any reference to the works of God, by which only his power and wisdom can be known, is related to have been spoken by Jesus Christ, as a remedy against distrustful care. “Behold the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin.”

So Paine seems to believe that God takes care of his creation.  But Paine also says this:

The Almighty lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation. It is as if he had said to the inhabitants of this globe that we call ours, “I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, AND LEARN FROM MY MUNIFICENCE TO ALL, TO BE KIND TO EACH OTHER.”

That seems to imply that God made a universe that benefits human beings, so people don’t need God’s continual intervention.  The universe already is beneficial to people, in a built-in sort of way.  In this mindset, God’s act of love that should inspire our ethics occurred when he gave us such a good cosmos.

2.  Where do I stand on the separation of church and state?  I don’t agree with removing religion from public life, so I have no problem with the Ten Commandments being in courthouses.  In this area, the ACLU and American Atheists should get a life.  I also have no problem with religion being a sort of conscience to the nation.  To its credit, the religious right does this when it comes to the lives of the unborn, but the well-being of other vulnerable people in America doesn’t quite make its radar.  Sure, many of them are quite generous when it comes to charitable donations, but they’re not as interested in addressing larger social problems.  Their charitable donations are like their characterization of welfare: the poor get a check, but the problems that keep the poor down remain.  While the religious right does well to ask if the government addresses problems or only makes things worse, they should be more than the “Just say no” people: if something doesn’t work, they should explain where the weakness lies and offer an alternative.

In my times of personal revolt against evangelical Christianity, I can somewhat understand the concerns of gays and lesbians.  They wonder why Christian beliefs against homosexuality should be manifest in a public policy that works against them, when they themselves don’t adhere to those beliefs.  They believe that the state recognizing gay marriage is consistent with the American tradition of pluralism.

But I also recoil from the line of “What I do in the privacy of my own home is my business, and nobody else’s.”  Take, for instance, the religious right’s opposition to pornography.  Many believe that they should be able to read and watch what they want without being told what to do by a bunch of prudes.  But I do think that the church should be a conscience that speaks against the dehumanization of women and the cheapening of sex that pornography promotes.  Our sexually laissez-faire attitude hasn’t helped this nation, as the number of unwanted pregnancies and STD’s make clear.  But should we legislate morality?  Or a more appropriate question would be, “Can we legislate morality?”  More appropriate still: “When should we legislate morality?”, since any law we pass makes a moral judgment.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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9 Responses to Deism, Separation of Church and State

  1. befuddled2 says:

    Interesting post. You have done some good reading on our founding and seem to have a better understanding of the religous beliefs of our founders than most.

    You say that you have no problem with religion in the public square and then immediately equate that with Christian religion. Would you feel so comfortable with something from the Koran in the courtroom?

    In regards to religion in the public square I would ask what you mean by public square. If you mean government offices and functions then I would strongly disagree.

    Our government is meant to represent all of us. For them to seem to sponsor one religion over another would be divisive and against the Constitution.

    I know of a man, an evangelical Christian, who moved to Hawaii. During a public school football game the crowd was urged to stand for the prayer. The prayer was Buddhist since Hawaii has a large Buddhist population. He quickly learned why the Constitution was crafted so that the government has to be nuetral in matters of religion.

    Having said this there is another public square – that of the private sector. I see churches almost ever other block in my neighborhood, almost all with signs in front. I have neighbors that make it very obvious to the casual driver by that theirs is a Christian home. Malls, stores, radio stations, TV stations and so forth are all free to display as much or as little of any religion they desire.

    Let the individuals worship and display that worship. Let the government govern in nuetrality without taking sides.

    Your question on when we should legistlate morality is a good one. However I have rambled on far too long so I will leave that one alone.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comments, Befuddled. I see your point about the government representing all of us. And some of what you said about religion being a big thing in America went through my mind as I listened to the priest’s homily. “If we remove the commandments from a courthouse, people won’t turn to religion?”, I thought. “There will still be churches and synagogues!”

    But I don’t really have a problem with America giving a nod to its civil religious heritage. It’s part of our history. If I were in a Muslim country, I’d respect their recognition of their religion, as long as they didn’t try to force me to practice it. The same would be true if I were in Hawaii. I don’t understand why groups like the ACLU make a big deal about the commandments being displayed in a courthouse. Protecting the rights of the accused, yes, they do well on that. But trying to get the commandments removed?


  3. befuddled2 says:

    Why have the commandments there? What purpose do they serve? Read them and think about the fact that most of them are NOT enshrined in our laws.

    You shall have no other Gods before me. We have freedom of religion so I would hope that commandment is not going to be enforced in court.

    You shall not make an idol. Same comment as above.

    You shall not take the name of the lord in vain. Haven’t seen that one in the law books either.

    Resting on the seventh day. Not part of our law code.

    Honoring your mother and father. Good idea and much to be promoted, but not enshrined in law.

    No coveting. No law against that. Only if you act on those coveteous thoughts. In fact it could be argued that coveting is the basis for capitalism.

    That leaves murder. We do have laws against that, but you find those laws in place just about all law codes both ancient and modern.

    The same for theft.

    Adultery is not illegal although I will admit it does lead to legal issues in many cases.

    In short though there is no reason to have the 10 Commandments in the courthouse except as a way to promote a religion – especially since so many of them are not laws and some would run afoul of our Constitution.


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Some of those were laws at points in American history, but they’re considered archaic nowadays (no adultery, for example).

    But I’m not saying we should go back to that time. I just don’t think it’s wrong for America to acknowledge that it’s had a civil religion–a national belief in God as a basis for our values. No, we shouldn’t ban idols, or require people to worship only God. But those commands are about looking to a higher power, and I don’t think it’s wrong for us to officially value that as part of our history.


  5. befuddled2 says:

    Perhaps. However I would argue that the Ten Commandments in the courtroom would not, to me, seem the appropriate way to do so.

    Besides, what about those of us who do not look to a higher power? Does that make us less of an American?

    Further when you start going into some recognition of a higher power then you have to start asking which higher power. I notice that when a generic prayer is given or a prayer from another religion besides Christianity in government functions many protest and many walk out. Look at the furor when a Muslim swore on the Koran instead of the Bible,

    And that is where the real fun begins as witnessed by European and early American history in regards to religion and persecution.

    I would also point out that the Constitution was written without any acknowledgement of a higher power; that during the convention they did consider the idea of acknowledging Christianity or at the very least God as the foundation. Further that was a criticism that was used by those who were opposed to the Constitution to vote against its ratification.

    And yet they didn’t.

    My daughters learned about our founders and their beliefs in public school. And it was well done.

    They learned about he basic beliefs of Christianity in school along with the other major religions of the world and the United States. And it was well done.

    They know about the Christian culture from their everyday lives. And there is no issue.

    They hear and see politicians talking about their religous beliefs. And that is fine.

    I do not see a need for a more formal recognition beyond this by our government.


  6. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I’m not a fanatical anti-Muslim. Actually, that’s one area in which I’m offended by some on the religious right, or right. I remember that Tucker Carlson special on textbooks, and some people were lamenting that Muslim groups are meeting in public schools. They’d defend Christians groups on schools, but not Muslim ones? That makes no sense to me!

    What you say about the Constitutional Convention may be right—I’ve not really researched that. But I have looked at state constitutions from the time, and they were much more Christian than the U.S. Constitution (although the U.S. Constitution did give the government Sundays off). Plus there is similar hard-core separationism in American history, like James Madison (the author of the Bill of Rights) opposing the U.S. Congress having a chaplain. The thing is, though, that the founding fathers also did things that wouldn’t pass the muster of strict separationists nowadays. David Barton didn’t make ALL of the founding father quotes up!


  7. befuddled2 says:

    You are mistaken that the U.S Constitution gives the government Sundays off. It says nothing about this. In fact during President Andrew Jackson’s presidency there was a religious movement to stop having mail delivered on Sunday. President Jackson squelched that attempt.

    Yes, the state constitutions did have a strong religous bias. It was not against the Constitution for the states to establish a religion – only the Federal government was prohibited from this. However it is interesting to note how those state constitions changed over the years to become more religously neutral.

    I will also note that the states could enact laws prohibiting free speech. Something the southern states did quite freely in the years leading up to the Civil War as they attempted to stamp out the abolitionist movement.

    This is the reason that the 14th amendment was passed so that the rights in the U. S. Constitution would also hold true at the state level. Which was something that James Madison wanted to begin with, but narrowly lost in the voting on his proposal.

    In regards to the founders not doing things that would pass the seperation of church and state as we understand it today, it depends. You need to look to see if they were acting in a state government post – in which case there was no issue – or in a Federal role.

    And I will agree that there were some who even acting in a Federal role acted in ways contrary to our understanding of church/state seperation. However the founders were not a unified whole who believed and thought the same. There were disagreements among them over what the Constitution meant even before the ink was dry.

    Some founders held to a more modern understanding of church/state seperation. Others did not.


  8. jamesbradfordpate says:

    The passage I had in mind was Article I: Section 7:

    “If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.”

    That’s what I mean when I said it, but I was a little fuzzy on the details, so I just said the government was closed, since that would take care of the executive and legislative branch. But my error there was in being too broad.

    I agree with you pretty much on the differences of opinion. Sometimes, they could exist within the same person, as when Thomas Jefferson supported using government money for missionaries to the Native Americans.


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